|Stanley Forman, Boston Herald American|
Every time the 9-11 anniversary rolls around, we see clips of the media coverage of that day (sometimes, as in the case of MSNBC, they run their Today show coverage in real time). I only need to watch a few minutes of those planes crashing into the towers to feel my blood pressure rise and my heart rate skyrocket. Something about those people going to work in the morning, like any other day, only to become victims of a most horrendous act. The falling people, followed by crumbling buildings, and then the pile of burning, ashy rubble. The memories flood back. The rage follows me throughout the day, and I wind up angry with myself for feeling the way I do. It seems that if I am enlightened and balanced as a human being, I should not give into such primal instincts as hatred for another. But in the same breath, I also feel that rage is wholly justified given the circumstances. In short, I am again, as I was on that day, deeply conflicted and disturbed, even though I am 3000 miles away and more than a decade beyond the act itself.
As we head into another school year, there is a debate among teachers, parents and students regarding trigger warnings. When we hear the word “school” and “trigger” we think of school shootings, and certainly a school shooting might warrant a trigger warning when it is discussed in class, but should students be warned ahead of time when the course content or the discussion of that content might disturb people?
According to an article in The New York Times (May 17, 2014), “Colleges across the country…have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings,’ explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.” Jennifer Medina, the author of the article, goes on to say “The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”
I’m wondering, given recent events, if life should not come with a trigger warning. The twisted bodies, some still strapped to their airline seats, victims of a missile fired at a commercial plane over war-torn Ukraine. The torn and fragmented bodies on the dusty streets of Israel and Gaza. The murder of an unarmed black teenager in Missouri. The dead mounting up in dreadfully understaffed and under-equipped hospitals in Africa, the victims of Ebola. The poor souls, some dead, some barely alive, huddled on mountains and in desert canyons, hiding from ISIS militants intent on killing every last person. School shootings, murders of innocents, rapes, torture, brutality, cruelty to animals—all every day occurrences, all need trigger warnings.
One of the first harrowing and controversial sets of photographs depicting a news event was carried in newspapers across the country in the 1970s. They were taken by Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American. (For a good analysis, read Nora Ephron’s essay in the November 1975 issue of Esquire entitled, “The Boston Photographs.”) The three pictures show a fire fighter rescuing a woman and her child on a fire escape, smoke and heat swirling around them. In the second frame, something goes horribly wrong. The iron staircase pulls away from the building, and all three—fireman, woman and child—plummet to earth. The fireman catches a rung of the extension ladder and saves himself. The toddler’s fall was broken by the woman’s body so the child survived. The mother did not. According to Ephron, the newspapers debated whether to run the pictures. “They are pictures of death,” Ephron writes, “of that split second when luck runs out, and it is impossible to look at them without feeling their extraordinary impact and remember, in an almost subconscious way, the morbid fantasy of falling, falling off a building, falling to one’s death.” She ends her essay with these words: “they are great pictures, breathtaking pictures of something that happened. That they disturb readers is exactly as it should be…”
When I was teaching eighth grade in a Catholic school, a “Right-to-Life” group sent me a carton of full color brochures of various burned and dismembered fetuses to distribute to my eighth grade students as a way of proving that abortion is murder. I opened the box and felt as if someone had smashed me in the back of the head with a baseball bat. I guess my horror and nausea would mean the organization had a successful campaign on its hands. I thought it shameful, and I refused to distribute the material. I got more mileage out of teaching them that every human life matters, and that every human being has the potential to better the world, and that is why abortion is wrong. I taught them that actions come with consequences, and they must be prepared to take responsibility for their actions so that innocent babies are not destroyed. Beheaded, mutilated children were horrors that would overwhelm the lesson with abstract gore and violence. The subject of Roe versus Wade, of abortion versus life, is more complicated and nuanced than that. I thought the issue, and my students, deserved something better, something more balanced and less traumatizing. Something they could relate to, there on the cusp of young adulthood and a future of difficult decisions in a confusing world. Abortion is a moral issue, not just about dilation and curettage.
Should students receive trigger warnings in a classroom if something disturbing will be presented? Should literature teachers slap warnings on books with traumatic scenes? Do students need to be protected from bad things, disturbing images, violence and bloodshed? As a responsible instructor, if I were to show a film with graphic violence or bloodshed, I would mention it to the class beforehand. I certainly would not force a student to watch something he or she did not want to watch, and I would be sensitive to the needs of my students. Good teaching and life-changing experiences in the classroom mean teachers must challenge thinking, awaken young minds, push people to confront unpopular truths about themselves, about the world in which they live and help them make the moral or ethical choice.
“Do I dare disturb the universe,” T.S. Eliot asks in his famous poem. I would argue that we should be disturbed every day of our lives. We witness human beings committing acts of atrocity on their fellow human beings, on animals, on nature, on our planet. We are duplicitous, violent creatures who often use our much-ballyhooed higher order thinking skills to do some of the worst evil imaginable. In short, it is a big bad world out there with some very nasty people. But there is good, too, and truth, and beauty, and moments of pure grace and exhilaration. But without the darkness, would we know the light? We can be cautious and prepare our students for the difficult, traumatic experiences they will encounter in this life. But we cannot coddle them or sell them a sugar-coated vision of a world that does not exist. We must be sensitive to our students’ needs, but we should not fail to teach them the truth. Life is hard and mean, but it is beautiful and magnificent, too, sometimes all together in the same instant.